AMHERST MEDIA BUILDING ANOTHER STEP CLOSER TO APPROVAL

Architect's rendering of proposed new Amherst Media building at Main Street and Gray. South Elevation.

The Amherst Local Historic District Commission (LHDC) continued to move forward in it’s consideration of the application of Amherst Media for a certificate of appropriateness for their proposed project in the Emily Dickinson Historic District near the intersection of Gray and Main Streets. In a hearing continued from December 2, the Commission acknowledged that the applicants had made progress in meeting the requests of the Commission, but still needed to provide more detail in order for the Commission to reach a decision.

Amherst Media still needs to bring its proposal before the Planning Board, and that process  could extend well into the spring. The LHDC noted additional details from the petitioners are needed before it can approve the certificate. Bill Gillen, Amherst Media’s architect, said that the non-profit would like to move forward with its application to the Planning Board, even if its negotiations with the LHDC are not yet concluded. He noted that if the LHDC cannot issue a certificate by the time Amherst Media appears before the Planning Board, it would be helpful to have a letter from it, noting each area in which Amherst Media has complied with its requests and which, if any matters remain outstanding. He also noted that there are areas, such as parking, where the plan is not in compliance with zoning requirements, in this case with a reduced number of parking spaces, but that these adjustments were made at the request of the LHDC and are appropriate for a historic district.

LHDC Chair, Jennifer Taub, noted that the Commission faced its own time constraints and that it was in the interests of both Amherst Media and the Commission to move forward expeditiously.  Since LHDC is not subject to the Mullin Rule , if a Commissioner misses a hearing during the review of an application, that commissioner is precluded from voting on the application (although they can participate in the deliberations). Commission member Greta Wilcox has missed two hearings on the Amherst Media project and hence is disqualified from voting on it. Similarly, new members joining the commission would not be able to vote on hearings that began before they joined the board.  As the deliberations drag on, the prospect of losing additional votes to absence or replacement increases the possibility that the Commission would be unable to assemble a quorum to act on this proposal. Hearings began back in mid-August and were continued to September 9, October 15, October 22, Dec 2, and January 6.

Jim Lescault, Executive Director of Amherst Media, opened the hearing with a public statement in which he attested to his organization’s solidarity with the goals of the LHDC and it’s desire to fit in with the Dickinson neighborhood.  He noted the considerable work that has gone into insuring that the project fit in well with the historic district and the considerable changes in the project that have been made in response to LHDC requests. Architect Bill Gillen presented revised plans and engaged in discussion with commission members over changes that had been made and additional information that was needed.

Commissioners came up with a list of requests for additional details from the architect and said that they would communicate further requests in writing prior to the continuation of the hearing on January 27. These requests include but are not limited to:

  • a north elevation
  • 5/4 trim stock
  • list of sizes of all trim pieces
  • product and trim specs for oculus window
  • entry door elevations and production specification
  • window elevations and production specifications
  • detailed sections showing overhangs
  • more info on parking lot including design, entrance, lighting, and screening
  • material samples
  • more info on blending of separation wall with Gray Street wall
  • Main Street door details

Several people spoke during public comment time. Steve Judge and Dorothy Pam (speaking as individuals, and not as town officials) spoke against the project, describing it as an inappropriate design, detrimental to the viewscape. Pam referred to it as the right project in the wrong place and encouraged the petitioners to seek an alternative site. Both asked the LHDC to deny a certificate to Amherst Media. Hilda Greenbaum described the project as aesthetically challenged and wondered if the applicants could not come back with a more attractive design for the front entrance on Main Street.  Cynthia Crowner of the adjacent Amherst Women’s Club lamented the lack of lawn maintenance on the building site last summer and asked if the applicants can be required to pledge to maintain the property. Chair Taub pointed out that this is not within the purview of the Commission and is rather, a matter of neighborliness to be worked out. Meg Gage pointed out that opponents of this project suggest that Amherst Media ought to pursue alternatives, but that there are no concrete alternatives on the table, and that the suggestion that Amherst Media might find a home in the high school was never seriously taken up by the School Committee or school administration. 

Taub reminded those assembled that Town Meeting had rezoned these parcels for business/commercial purposes and that the Commission must work within that reality – it cannot prevent business or commercial development on the parcel.  She noted that while she understands people in the neighborhood would prefer to have the open lot that they have enjoyed for years, in her judgment, the revised Amherst Media proposal is not out of scale with surrounding structures and the Commission cannot take the position that an applicant is prohibited from building on the parcels they own because any building on the site will alter the current viewscape. This point was however disputed by some members of the audience.   Commission member Bruce Coldham pointed out that while he initially opposed the project, he came to realize that the Commission was faced with a choice of preserving the view or accepting that the current viewscape was going to change and striking a balance to get the best project possible. He argued for the latter both as a matter of community comity and (based on his experience on the Planning Board) to prevent exposing the Town to unnecessary legal jeopardy that might result from rigid prohibitions of building on the site.   He noted that the Commission and the petitioners had moved in a good direction and were close to coming to an acceptable if not perfect agreement, though he was not certain that he had won over other members of the Commission to this perspective.

The hearing on Amherst Media’s petition will resume at 4 p.m., Monday January 27 in the Community Room of the Police Station.

The complete video of the meeting can be viewed here.

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